It was previously stated that, as the focus of global development has drifted towards the Asian Pacific Region; the geopolitical importance of Central Asia in the Eurasian continent has been noticeably increasing. Apart from China and the USA, the European Union has recently showed an increased interest in the region of Central Asia. The EU is not only interested in its energy resources and wealth of minerals, but also in available transportation routes, which can notably boost trade and along with it, the EU’s economy. This confirms the thesis that all leading world powers have been recently competing for leadership in the region, which is one of their main goals (or maybe their primary goal) in Central Asia.
As to how the region’s residents perceive a certain external player seeking leadership there, it should be pointed out that it is, on the whole, associated with sympathy towards Russia. It is preconditioned not only by a decades-long joint history and Soviet industrialisation there, but also by the scope of the current financial support from Russia, who is still the main economic and political ally of the Central Asian countries. The claims of the Western propaganda about Russia’s influence by asserting the existence of “Russia’s aggression based on the example of Ukraine”, are being actively disseminated through mass media and civil societies, yet are not shared by the local public. However, when it comes to the subject of external actors, it should be acknowledged that the extent of sinophobia in the region is still high enough, which is equally true of the negative attitude towards the United States due to the well-known reasons of Washington’s imperialistic behavior throughout the world. In this context, the attitude towards the EU is generally positive or at least, no intolerance in it.
The EU focused its attention on the Central Asian region for the first time some 15 years ago, when it adopted in 2003 its Security Strategy, which envisioned signing agreements between the EU and Central Asian states. Although the EU titled its policy as the Central Asian Strategy, it was, nonetheless, aimed at establishing cooperation only with the five post-Soviet countries, i.e. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
In 2007, the EU confirmed its intentions towards this region by adopting the following document “The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for New Partnership”, which set out the targets for promoting political dialogue through regular meetings of EU representatives and the ministers of the region’s countries. Within the framework of the updated Strategy, the EU, while focusing on the human rights issues, announced its goal to develop cooperation with region’s countries in the following spheres: education, legislation, power generation and transport, environmental protection and water resources, management of state borders and drug trafficking, trade and economic relations. For the purposes of implementing the aforementioned tasks, the EU branches belonging to is External Relations Service were established in Central Asian countries, through which the EU not only started to build itself up as a sufficiently important regional player, but was also trying to influence the regional policy.
In 2015 and 2017, this Strategy was updated and supplemented by focusing more on cooperation in security and power-generation spheres. In 2016, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, visited Kyrgyzstan for the first time in history. An EU delegation headed by Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, visited Uzbekistan on November 9.
The 13th meeting of the heads of the EU Foreign Services and Central Asian countries, in the format of “5+1”, took place on November 10 in Uzbekistan, where its participants discussed issues of security, economic development and EU’s role in the region.
The EU demonstrated its undisguised interest in regional energy resources and transport corridors with its recent steps, as well as its intention to expand its influence in Central Asia by better funding aid programs. Still, we should point out that the EU allocations are not comparable by volume with Russia’ financial support to region’s states, and the funds from the EU programs are not always understandable and transparent.
The Central Asian countries are regarded by the EU as its partners in power generation to diversify oil and gas deliveries. But looking at the world map, we see that the EU is surrounded by hydrocarbon suppliers from almost all sides. Central Asia is the least important of these suppliers, considering production volumes and, mostly, transportation. Besides, the outlooks for delivering the energy carriers from Central Asia to Europe are still highly controversial for the near future. Nonetheless, Brussels has been making efforts to develop the mineral production and power generation sectors in the region.
The issues of cooperation with regional countries in counter-terrorism have been in the center of attention recently after the defeat of the terroristic Islamic State (ISIS) and due to a threat of instability in some Central Asian states, many citizens of which worked with ISIS and now plan to come back to their home countries or migrate to Europe. Currently, many experts suppose that a new model of extremism, upgraded both technologically and tactically, adapted to the specific multinational membership can be exported from the combat zone into the Central Asian states. It has been happening in the context of such a complex phenomenon as the self-identification of the Turk peoples, the adjustment of traditional ways of life and, most importantly, the geopolitical rivalry in the region. That is why the EU initiatives in the sphere of security are a separate cooperation field.
With its recent actions, Brussels demonstrated its intent to shift the emphasis, to a certain extent, from the cooperation with Central Asia in the two-region format to a closer cooperation with each of the southern post-Soviet countries. The EU is still a novice in this region and while offering its services and funding, it has been, in fact, checking things out to reveal points of entry that can be used in the future. If you look at the EU’s official reports and programs, it is obvious that the EU is striving rather for distribution of information about itself and creating an image of an “up-market partner” than for a real settlement of the region’s security issues. The EU’s disregard of Russia’s presence in the region, especially considering that the Russian contribution to the development of Central Asian states is far greater compared to the European contribution, is equally astonishing.
Europe, as it launched its first 750 mln-budget Strategy Edition for the post-Soviet South 15 years ago, encountered a lack of experts who would understand the countries of that region. The Europeans have recently discovered that these states and, hopefully, from now on, Brussels will make less unfortunate mistakes in that region.
Vladimir Odintsov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“